May 1, 2009

Publishers heave a sigh of relief at Google settlement delay … and start reading


Maybe a lot of publishers have been feeling the way we have for the last month or so here at Melville House — like there was a man holding a gun to our heads while another man, grinning in a shiny suit, keeps jabbing a pen at us and saying, “Here, just sign this. Everything will be fine. Your worries will be over! It’ll be fine!” Which would mean that, like us, those other publishers are now feeling huge relief at the postponement of the deadline to sign on to the Google settlement — a settlement that was, after all, infinitely complicated, both ethically and practically, and was going to radically change the business of not just publishers, but writers and translators and librarians and academics and on and on and on … while creating a huge, new, monolithic and privately-owned literary and journalistic authority.

We now have at least a little time to try and study the deal in the depth it deserves — that is, to read some of the scant in-depth and astute criticism of the settlement that’s had time to make it into print, such as this Wall Street Journal op-ed from last month by literary agent Lynn Chu:

“The aging baby boomers now flacking the settlement don’t seem to understand that PDF scanning (how Google and everyone else digitizes books) isn’t rocket science; it’s cheap and easy. Books will be digitized without Google. But the Google settlement sets in amber today’s overhyped role of the Internet, ruled by that great and magnificent Oz — Google.”

“Sound like hyperbole? Consider this: Under the settlement, every rights-owner in America is supposed to hand over all their private contract data, on every edition of every work they ever wrote — and every excerpt permission ever granted to others — at the peril of losing the money Google will be making on their backs. This is a massive burden on everyone in the book industry, making us all, in effect, Google’s data-entry slaves. Indeed, in most cases such information about every permission ever granted is unlocatable. It opens a Pandora’s box of disputes and mistaken claims about who actually owns what.”

It’s unfortunate that Chu resorts to the increasinglly vicious ageism that’s become so off-hand and dominant in much of the technological discussion concerning the book business — what, there aren’t any “aging baby boomers” opposing the settlement? (Hello!?) And as if the perpetrators of the deal at Google weren’t a bunch of young whippersnappers in the first place, proving age has nothing to do with it — but other than that her take is astute, informed, and properly alarmed, of an order that’s highly unusual for the mainstream discussion so far.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives